Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 12th 2008
Emma: A Victorian Romance
Sub.DVD - DVD Collection 2
A month has passed since Emma left London and William behind. She still believes wholeheartedly in her decision to abandon her forbidden relationship and she soon settles into a comfortable routine working at the rural retreat of the wealthy, unpredictable Mrs. Mölders. But the hole in her heart has never really healed, and her natural reticence alienates her from her coworkers. In London William is floundering in the wake of Emma's departure, eventually finding support in Eleanor. When the two are engaged, his father is overjoyed, while her father, the intolerant Viscount Campbell, rankles under the necessity of marrying his daughter off to the nouveau riche. Emma resists all temptation to return to London, but events conspire against her when a seemingly innocent friendship with a lonely lady lands her at the entirely wrong engagement party.
Where Emma's first season derived its most pleasurable moments from Mrs. Stownar's dry, knowing relationship with E>mma, with her death the second series shifts its focus exclusively onto E>mma's romantic travails. It's impossible not to miss the sharp, secretly compassionate old lady, but it's actually the subsequent shift to pure romance that gives real pause. Neither William nor E>mma, as strong and fundamentally decent as they are, are particularly arresting individuals. There's no guarantee that they will be capable of supporting a full-fledged romantic drama, and theirs is the type of pure love that basically destroys any possible romantic turnarounds, rendering its course quite predictable. Add to that the fact that their basic predicament has been the base of countless romances since Shakespeare popularized it with Romeo and Jul>iet, and you have reason for trepidation even after the superb showing the series made in its first season. As it turns out, such fears are entirely unfounded. True to its name, the second season is a simple Victorian romance, but it's a simple romance that, for all of its white-bread conventionality, is possessed of a gentle, slow-moving power.
The genius of Emma's second season is to take the universal tale of two lovers separated by forces beyond their control and imbed it, not in ripe melodrama, but in stolid, everyday life. Emotions emerge slowly from repetitive mundanities and seep almost unnoticed from underneath heavy Victorian manners, building quietly to emotional climaxes that are both subtle and potent. Director Tsuneo Kobayashi has an uncanny ability to communicate a wealth of feeling with a single significant movement of animated eyes, and he guides emotions and events with a sure, surprisingly cinematic hand that never grows heavy or obtrusive. Even the plot contrivances leading up to E>mma and William's inevitable reunion unfold with a grace that makes their preposterousness seem natural, and the repercussions of their meeting are as achingly honest as they are devastating.
As for the gap left by Mrs. Stownar, it is filled with unexpected success by the supporting cast, including E>mma's coworkers and eccentric new boss, but also including more established characters such as William's father, whose marriage explains his autocratic treatment of William's love life, and Eleanor, who grows from love-struck girl to self-possessed woman in a mere handful of episodes.
The meticulous reconstruction of Victorian England, from the gilded excesses of the ruling class to the homey roughness of their servants, still dominates the series' production. Active background animation and lush art keep London living and breathing (even without William's effusive monologues about its history), and the period detail in the clothing and manners of the characters is breathtaking given its animated nature. However, the shift to intense romanticism also showcases some of the series' less obvious technical merits. Kobayashi displays a refreshing willingness to trust his visuals in the absence of explanatory dialogue, allowing Eleanor to do her most important speaking with a pair of startling, expressive eyes, and letting the stiff, unyielding faces of patriarchs such as Viscount Campbell say everything that needs saying about the inflexible nature of their dying class system. The romance also affords Kobayashi the opportunity to combine gorgeous, lyrical imagery with Kunihiko Ryo's beautiful minimalist score, most remarkably during a delicate moonlit tryst between William and E>mma.
In case anyone missed the “sub” in the title of this review, yes, Right Stuf is releasing the series, like its predecessor, without an English version. Unlike its predecessor, this set is slim on extras, boasting only clean opening and ending animation (along with some boring Japanese promos) and a substantially less substantial booklet. The booklet does afford one a chance to admire Mori's clean, sharp character designs by way of an extensive collection of line art, and the last few pages are devoted to an exclusive—and lengthy—interview with her that is quite interesting, in spite of its prosaic nature.
Emma's second season is undeniably more conventional than its first—romantic drama abounds and instead of fragile hope, it ends on a note of swooning romanticism that would be cheesy were it not so satisfying—but that's weak criticism in the face of the quiet strength of its central romance. Traditionally Victorian romance may be to men what The Three Stooges is to women, but that just goes to show how useless tradition can be. Emma is a series that anyone on the lookout for something slow, bittersweet and rewarding can enjoy, regardless of testosterone level.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : B+
+ A rewarding end to a quiet romance whose potent sentimentality belies its gentle slice-of-life nature.
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